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Hilu receives research award

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 34 - June 27, 1996

Khidir Hilu, professor of botany, has received the J. Shelton Horsley Research Award from the Virginia Academy of Science.

The award, presented during the 74th annual meeting of the academy, is bestowed for original research and was presented to Hilu based on a research paper titled "The matK Gene: Sequence Variation and Application to Plant Systematics" and a presentation in the botany section, "Phylogenetic Construction with matK: Walking Along the Gene."

Hilu joined Virginia Tech in 1981. His work deals with plant systematics and evolution, with special interest in grasses. Genetic diversity of crops, especially of the cereal millets and peanut, is one of the main focuses of his research program. He currently emphasizes molecular biology in his research work and is involved in comparative studies of protein genes in cereals and grasses.

Hilu has more than 60 scientific publications and 36 abstracts. He has presented talks at national and international conferences and invited talks at institutes in Germany, Egypt, Japan, Portugal, and Kenya.

At the international level, Hilu has been collaborating with scientists from Egerton University, Kenya, since 1986 on a study to examine the genetic diversity and plant genetic resources of five millet cereals and to apply the DNA technology to the breeding of these millets. Millets are a drought- and heat-tolerant, highly nutritious, and important cereal in semi-arid regions. With global warming, these millets could become a good option in some developed countries, including the United States.

Hilu started a molecular-biology laboratory at Egerton University, Kenya, which is being used for applying molecular genetics in plant breeding, and has trained three Kenyan scientists in molecular techniques to form the nucleus for the research group at Egerton. The project is funded by grants he obtained from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Previously, Hilu won a research award from the CSIRO, Australia, to support a sabbatical at the Plant Industry Division in Canberra, to work on the cloning and characterization of seed storage proteins and ribosomal genes in grasses. A talk by Hilu and John Kell, a previous student, received the William and Mary Baker Award of The Virginia Academy of Science for the best presentation in the botanical section during the 1991 meeting. Hilu also has received awards from the Botanical Society of America and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to attend meetings of the International Botanical Congress in Berlin and Australia.

Hilu has served as a reviewer for the NSF, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations Development Program, the British Natural Environment Research Council, and a number of national and international journals. He was a panel member of the USAID Program in Science and Technology and the subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry of the Botanical Society of America Committee "Agenda 2000." He served on the Recommendation Committee for the Second International Workshop of Small Millets in 1991 in Zimbabwe and the editorial board of the Genetics Newsletter.

Hilu co-organized a national symposium on the Biological Adaptations in Grasses at the 1983 annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America and the Second International Symposium on Grass Systematics and held in 1986 at the Smithsonian Institution.